Every person that’s ever been involved in any kind of creative process will go through the same two phases of doubt.
The first occurs when you’re just starting out. You’re doubting whether the thing you want to do makes sense and whether you will even be able to pull it off.
The second occurs as your work nears its end. You are not sure whether it really is done, or whether you should polish it just a bit more. Add a few more things to it. Make sure it’s all it can be.
That first phase is easily overcome by just starting to do the thing. As times goes on and the more you work on it, the less doubt there will be.
The second can be quite a bit more insidious. While iteration is key to any creative process, there comes a point where you just have to call it. Not just because you’ll otherwise never complete the thing, but also because further work on the work may be actually detrimental to your thing’s quality. You might accidentally overdesign your thingie, make it too complex, too intricate.
Look, I have no idea if John Harper actually suffered from the issue of overdesigning when making Blades. I haven’t talked to the man on the topic. Maybe the issues that I will be discussing below entered the system at a very early phase instead of being added later down the line. May be, I don’t know.
However, I do have a problem with some of the rules as written and the way they are presented in the game. Specifically, certain elements of the game that are just too complex, too rules-heavy for their own good. Rules that take up too much mental space or too much time at the table with too little benefit. There are two specific examples that I want to discuss here, starting with the engagement roll.
The engagement roll
The purpose of the engagement roll in the overall structure of a game of Blades is quite simple as the starting point for any mission.
Want to rob some fishermen of their hard earned coin? Ok, engagement roll, and you’re at the docks just as the fishermen are docking.
Want to assassinate a noble during a ball? Ok, engagement roll, you’re at the front gates, flashing your fabricated invitations at the guards.
The engagement roll makes sure that we skip all the boring stuff and cut to what’s exciting and important. It’s extremely flexible and contextual, so you’ll never start your mission quite the same way, unless of course you want to.
In terms of game mechanics, an engagement roll is resolved by first picking an approach from a list of 6 possible options, such as assault, deception, stealth and social, and then considering and adding the missing approach-specific detail.
If it’s Assault, where do you strike first?
If it’s Deception, how will you carry out the deception?
If Social, who is your connection?
And so on.
Once that part is resolved, you roll some dice to decide how successful your approach is initially. You go down a list of factors and considerations, adding and removing dice as appropriate.
Is your plan daring? Add a die. Overly complex? Remove a die. Is your target prepared for your heist? Remove a die. And so on.
Once all of that is resolved, we make the engagement roll and establish the first scene based on it. Once the first scene has been resolved, we move on with the mission and we leave the engagement roll in the past.
Now, note what we’ve laid out here. We’ve gone through a process that will take us a few minutes at least to resolve. Pick an approach from a list. Provide the detail. Then go through a list of possible factors. Roll the dice.
Let’s say, three to four minutes of game time to establish something that will be relevant for roughly 30 seconds.
Now, you may rightly state that on a narrative level, the engagement roll is much more than what I’ve just described. After all, by answering these questions about our mission, we have fleshed the mission itself out in more detail. We have engaged with the narrative and the world.
And that is a perfectly valid reaction.
My question, however, is whether it was even necessary to structure this engagement roll so rigidly? To make the GM and players open the book, go through a predetermined list of items and mark them off one by one? To a certain extent, doesn’t just popping the book open and reading through a predetermined list kind of take away from the experience? From that fiction-first approach that Blades is oriented towards?
Let’s put it another way…. What would we lose if the engagement roll was structured not as a set of bullet points to go through, but as a set of suggestions and ideas?
Your approach does not have to be classified as Assault, or as Stealth. Merely consider, without referencing the book or explicitly calling it “An Assault”, how you plan to approach the target and make first contact. Think about your motivations, the situation in the game world and your characters. Make a decision based on that, not on a list.
Bam, you’ve probably made your engagement all that much special to you by thinking about it and not just going through a list and answering one specific question about the mission. And even better, you didn’t open the book, you didn’t reference the rules. You are talking amongst yourselves, and the book is safely closed at hand.
What would we lose if all of the rules in the book amounted to:
“Consider the potential negative and positive factors to your approach. Things such as its complexity, how well-suited it is for your target and any other potential factors. Add or remove dice accordingly”
That’s a simple thing to remember. You don’t have to open the book and go through a list. You can keep it in your head all the time and when making the engagement roll, engage with the people around you instead of reading from the good book.
This is the issue of overdesign. The rules being too heavy for the load that we need to pull at the table. Elements of play that either require too much time or too much mental load for the benefits provided in play.
If the engagement roll had more weight to it, for example by having it affect the entire score in some way or other, or if it provided other benefits or drawbacks, then it might make sense to go through the process as laid out in the book.
As is, it’s just a four-minute process with a 30-second outcome. The less irritating brother of a pointless 2-hour combat encounter in D&D.
Let’s start with the good part of the entanglements system.
In a way, the entanglements’ position in the game mirrors that of the consequence in the core skill check.
Make a skill check, get a complication in the form of a consequence.
Carry out a mission, get a complication in the form of an entanglement.
All good here. We are applying the same principle of actions carrying consequence on a micro level (skill check) and the macro level (entanglements).
The key difference between the two is the amount of flexiblity.
When it comes to making a judgement call on a consequence, the GM and the players have a fairly broad palette to choose from based on what makes sense in the fiction of the game.
Not every Skirmish check will have Harm as its consequence.
Not every Prowl check will result in the GM starting a clock called “The enemy detects you”.
This flexibility is sorely lacking in the entanglements.
You don’t get to consider what makes sense in the fiction. You don’t get to sit at the table, thinking “What would be a good story beat to keep things flowing?” No, instead, you consult the good book and its tables. Based on the crew’s heat, you roll some dice and get a fixed entanglement. And while some of these entanglements at the very least have the decency to be somewhat flexible, many are extremely rigid in their application.
For instance, let’s take a look at the Show of force entanglement.
A faction with whom you have a negative status makes a play against your holdings. Give them 1 claim or go to war (drop to -3 status). If you have no claims, lose 1 hold instead.
The way the game sets up this entanglement turns the entire procedure into an extremely mechanical transaction. One whose connection to the crew’s story has to be forced in, even if it makes no sense.
What if the crew has no faction at a negative status?
What if the crew has a faction at -1 status, but they haven’t engaged with them at all for several months and introducing them at this point would severely detract from the flow of the story?
Instead of trusting the GM and the players to make a context-sensitive decision for themselves, the game not only forces an entanglement down their throats, but also immediately provides them with the mechanical way to take care of it. In a way, instead of being a narrative element, the entanglement simply boils down to a game of “Pick which resource you will lose at this point”. Devoid of a required link to the fiction or narrative, a purely mechanical transaction.
GM: Ok, I rolled the Show of force entanglement. Let me just pop the good book open and reference it.
GM: Ok, it’s Show of force. The Billhooks are making a claim against your holdings.
GM: Would you like to give them 1 claim or go to war with them?
Players: Hm, let’s give them the claim for now.
GM: Ok, done. Moving on…
Similar to the engagement roll, it’s like the game is doing everything in its power to make sure we interact with it. To make sure it is present and referenced at the table. That we don’t forget how brilliant it is.
Imagine instead, a different type of entanglements.
Make two tables. Each of these tables needs to have values from 1 to 6.
The first one we will label Severity. This means just how serious an entanglement is.
A 1 means that you get a slap on the wrist. An ally is unavailable for a while. You lose 1 Coin. You lose 1 Rep. Your engagement roll on the next mission will be made at -1d.
A 6 means catastrophe has struck. A previously unfriendly faction has started a war with you. The royal guard are upon you. Your hideout is under attack. Something that requires a hard and fast response from the gang.
The second one we will label Type. This will be the general description of how the entanglement manifests itself.
1 - occult; 2 - law; 3 - internal; 4 - rival gang; 5 - finances or assets; 6 - allies.
After each mission, you first roll for Severity, adding or removing dice based on the fiction and certain game elements, such as Heat. Once Severity has been resolved, roll for Type.
Consult the dice, consult the fiction, come up with a sensible entanglement for your crew at this point in time.
Severity 1, occult.
GM: Barry, as you go to sleep, you start hearing strange disembodied voices, urging you to spill blood on your next mission.
Barry: Um, I try to sleep through it.
(during next mission)
GM: Barry, those strange disembodied voices pop up again. As you try to ignore them, you feel your hand involuntarily reaching for your dagger, with the countess still turned away from you.
Barry: Um, um, um… I muscle through it and blast my way out of the room, away from the countess. Can I make a check for this?
GM: Sure, how about Attune?
Severity 3, rival gang entanglement.
One of your cohorts is found beaten up, barely breathing. Attached to him is a note “Heard about your work at the pharmacy. Stay away from the docks, or we will gut you lot like a fish”.
Too bad, the gang was just planning to visit the docks again in a few days. Looks like there might be a complication to that mission. Does the crew ignore the threat, or forfeit their planned job at the docks?
Severity 6, allies entanglement.
Your network of spies on the streets brings you horrible news. That Lampblack guard you killed on your last mission? That was actually an undercover member of the Crows, your allies. Worse yet, he was the brother of the Crows’ leader. They are prowling the streets, looking for you. Ready to spill blood.
You were previously at +2 status with the Crows, but you are now at -2 status. If left unaddressed, the Crows will go to war with you in a few days. What do you do?
The game may even instruct the GM to completely skip the Type roll if they or one of the players already have something in mind. Roll for Type only if you need a prompt.
Use the book as a tool, not as a straitjacket.
By doing this, we have made out entanglements function almost identically as the consequences. The macro level more closely mirrors the micro level and all the good stuff we love in it.
In their current format, I cannot help but shake the feeling that the engagement and entanglement mechanics are designed in a way that first and foremost detracts from the fiction-first approach spelled out in the book. It is not fiction-first, it is extremely mechanics-first, with the fiction shoehorned afterwards. This is particularly true in the case of the entanglements.
Secondly, what I find fairly irritating is just how much an individual game has to rely on referencing the book constantly. By trying to be too intricate, the game detracts from the immersive experience it aims to be, and makes itself more important than the people actually playing the game.
As mentioned in an earlier post, Blades are one of the most audacious and ambitious games I have played. The engagement and entanglement rolls, while potentially problematic, are not the end of the world and they only slightly take away from the pleasure of playing the game, and as seen above, can be easily corrected or altered. If you’re like me and you’ve found these systems to cramp your style, give the suggested changes a go. Hell, or even come up with something of your own. Use the material above as a thinking point. Come up with something better. If you do, let me know about it, would love to see what other options I missed out on.
With that said, this article concludes the two-parter on the topic of Blades in the Dark. While there are many other valuable topics to discuss in regard to this system, we will be doing something different next.
In a similar vein to these two Blades in the Dark articles, coming up next is a similar analysis of D&D 5E. Akin to Blades, it is a system very close and dear to me and one that I enjoy playing very much. I would like to take a look at what I consider one of its failings and present some quick and easy ways to fix or at least alleviate the issue.